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Donald Trump, Julian Assange, free speech and censorship: for a class perspective

Ben Chacko addresses some of vital points notably absent from the present media discourse on censorship

DONALD TRUMP’S Twitter and Facebook bans place issues of free speech and who regulates it back in the public eye.

Along with other humiliations — most obviously his second impeachment — Trump being silenced on the media platform dearest to him highlights his chaotic and ungracious departure from office.

Another end-days setback for the outgoing president relates to free speech from a different angle — a British court’s decision not to extradite Julian Assange to the US to face espionage charges.

This is far more important. For all the drama over Trump’s permission to post, Facebook and Twitter both justified it on the grounds that his encouragement of far-right thugs invading the Capitol was incitement to violence, a traditional and justifiable reason for regulation.

The distinction between necessary measures to protect people from fascist violence and restrictions on free speech is too often blurred, with some even treating the ban on Golden Dawn in Greece as a freedom of speech question. 

This is to completely misunderstand the entire process by which the anti-fascist left, fighting together with the victims of fascist terror, fought and secured the conviction of Golden Dawn as a criminal organisation: one which, as an organisation, was responsible for the murders and attempted murders of immigrants, the rapper Pavlos Fyssas and communist trade unionists. 

 It’s vital that we approach these questions from a class perspective and one which recognises the nature of the capitalist state as an instrument of class rule.

That has been lacking in much of the reaction to the Capitol invasion in the US, where Trump’s supporters are counterposed to “law and order” exemplified by the sanctity of the US Congress. 

The FBI may at the moment be tracking down those who participated in the Capitol invasion (though the “law and order” response on the day was strikingly weak). 

But fascists are not, generally, on the opposite side to “law and order.” They may well be criminals. They may break the law lethally as individuals and they may do so systematically to spread terror (like Golden Dawn, or as various neonazi groups like the Wolfsbrigade 44 that have been identified and banned in Germany over the past year evidently planned to). 

But “law and order” is a political term that doesn’t denote respect for the law in general but support for state authoritarianism (it is never deployed against breaches of the law by state agents or police). 

Trump supporters at their most dangerous have been demonstrators in favour of state violence, specifically when mounting heavily armed counter-protests to Black Lives Matter (BLM) demos. It is on these occasions that they have killed people (as Kyle Rittenhouse did in Kenosha, Wisconsin).

The far right are cheerleaders for the authoritarian state as deployed against immigrants, socialists and organised labour. It is clear in the US, and even clearer in Germany, that there is significant fascist presence within state agencies such as the police and army. 

In the US, law enforcement has treated far-right rioters gently by comparison with BLM or trade union demonstrators. In Greece, the state did all it could to avoid Golden Dawn’s conviction as a criminal organisation, and the state prosecutor bent over backwards to seek the most lenient possible sentences once it had been convicted; the ban was a win for a democratic mass campaign to drive fascists out of politics, and was not an initiative of the capitalist state at all. The trial also revealed some of the collusion with Golden Dawn by parts of the state and conservative right.

Responding to the real threat of far-right violence by strengthening the repressive powers of the state is self-defeating. History does not suggest it is an effective anti-fascist strategy, and in any case the state is far likelier to deploy such powers against the left.

Which takes us back to Assange. The outstanding free speech battle of January 2021 is not Trump’s tweets but the Assange verdict — and if the ruling against extradition is a victory, the judge’s dismissal of all the free speech-related arguments put forward by the defence is a serious defeat. In the words of National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet: “The judge rejected the defence case that the charges against Assange related to actions identical to those undertaken daily by most investigative journalists. In doing so, she leaves open the door for a future US administration to confect a similar indictment against a journalist.”

The ruling — that Britain is happy to comply with US requests for the prosecution of journalists for publishing classified material (an ominous new development even in US law) — comes amid a wider squeeze on free expression.

Take the dramatic expansion of Ofcom’s guidance on banning offensive speech, effective from December 31. Four protected characteristics (race, sex, religion and nationality) have been expanded to 18, including “social origin,” “political or any other opinion” and even “property.” 

It is not hard to see how such guidelines could be used to suppress socialist agitation or the language of class struggle. Could Bernie Sanders’s speeches against “the billionaire class” be deemed to incite hatred since they hold their property against them? Or the slogan of Corbyn’s Labour, “for the many not the few”? 

This is the context in which too much of the left looks to ban, rather than challenge, wrongheaded arguments and “fake news.” 

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has called for the state to tackle misleading anti-vaccination stories online with emergency legislation to force social media companies to remove them. 

Ashworth’s view that anti-vax stories exploit “people’s fears, their mistrust of institutions and governments” is true enough, but the left should be wary of such rhetoric. 

After all, ministers have given us ample reason to fear and distrust them, and the Tory government’s response to the pandemic has been one of blatant cronyism — handing lucrative health contracts to personal friends and not even bothering to address concerns over conflicts of interest (such as the chief scientific adviser’s shares in GlaxoSmithKline, or the Chancellor’s in a firm with significant investments in vaccine developer Moderna). A ban on stories that undermine trust in institutions could affect our ability to report on these questions.

That this is the natural extension of such legislation should be clear from Labour’s earlier call on the government to revoke television channel RT’s broadcasting licence, based on the pitifully thin “evidence” of Russian interference in the EU referendum of 2016. 

The root cause of increased liberal support for censorship is the collapse of public confidence in the political and economic system itself. The assumption that this is the result of people being duped by malign foreign actors rests on an unwillingness to confront the actual inability of modern capitalism to meet human needs or expectations.

The liberal instinct to crack down on “fake news” is, like the “law and order” agenda, highly selective: it applies to alternative media and individuals on social media, rather than the barrage of fake news promoted by the Establishment media day-in, day-out — which the left should now be wise to given the appalling media treatment of Jeremy Corbyn over the last five years.

And it is fundamentally anti-democratic, relying on states and, worse, huge for-profit corporations to decide what is and isn’t acceptable. As former Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa could attest, Facebook’s record of political censorship is an anti-socialist one.

Britain’s media landscape is already dominated by rich tycoons; the appointment of a banker and major Tory donor, Richard Sharp, to head the BBC intensifies that. Capitalist crises lead to further monopolisation: the huge hit to newspaper circulations as a result of pandemic lockdowns will further impoverish media diversity in the country. 

The commercial threat combines with the state’s increased willingness to criminalise public-interest journalism like that of Assange to form a bleak outlook for socialist and alternative media.

Too much of the left sees freedom of speech as a right-wing cause, championed by apologists for racism and bigotry. 

Yet the coming week marks 80 years since our forerunner the Daily Worker was banned by ministerial fiat, something you can read about in our January 21 edition. We need to wake up to the threat state and corporate censorship poses to ourselves. 

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